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How to get a productivity boost from your to-do list

By setting clear goals, celebrating small wins and leveraging technology, you can move ahead at work

At the heart of every effective to-do list lies the art of prioritisation.(iStockphoto)

By Mayank Kumar

LAST PUBLISHED 19.02.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

As professionals navigating the fast-paced world of modern workplaces, the humble to-do list stands as our steadfast companion, guiding us through the maze of tasks and responsibilities that populate our workdays. They have long evolved from simple points on paper and reminders on Post-its, to digital apps with different formats to suit different preferences and needs. Research shows the current use of digital lists can even help enhance communication and task tracking, even in high-stress environments.

The simple act of listing down tasks has immense psychological benefits. This approach makes even daunting tasks feel doable and gives you the confidence to tackle the day ahead. Your list could include addressing urgent emails first thing in the morning for an hour, then working on the draft of a project proposal for a client for two hours, taking a 20-minute coffee break and then shifting gears to compile and analyse the sales reports for the week, meet your juniors to catch up on the day’s work for an hour and so on.

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The very act of making a list declutters the mind, organises thoughts, and allows an individual to set a clear direction for action. Research highlights how task completion drives mental energy with the sense of accomplishment and motivation derived from ticking off completed tasks, spurring productivity.

Yet, for many, what starts as a well-intentioned to-do list often ends up as a source of frustration and overwhelm. It doesn’t have to be this way. With the right strategies and mindset, we can transform our to-do lists into powerful tools for productivity and success.

The power of prioritisation 

At the heart of every effective to-do list lies the art of prioritisation. Of course, each individual has a method of approaching their workload. Some like to take it one at a time, others pride themselves on multitasking. Whatever works for you, make it your strength and work according to the priority that each task demands. Take a moment at the start of each day to assess your priorities. Identify the tasks that are both urgent and important, and focus your energy on completing them first. By mastering this fundamental principle, you set yourself up for success and ensure that your efforts are directed towards tasks that truly matter.

It is here that prioritisation techniques, such as the Eisenhower Matrix, are invaluable. The matrix is inspired by the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, used these words to develop the concept of the Eisenhower Matrix.

Break it down, build momentum 

One of the most common pitfalls of to-do lists is the inclusion of large, intimidating tasks that seem insurmountable at first glance. To combat this, break down big projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Not only does this make the overall endeavour feel less daunting, but also creates a sense of progress and momentum as you tick off each item on your list. Remember, every small victory brings you one step closer to your ultimate goal.

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Set ‘SMART’ Goals 

Effective and productive to-Do lists are the cornerstone of clear and achievable goals. Utilising the SMART criteria will ensure that each task is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Setting SMART goals maximises organisational performance and helps in achieving more by providing a clear roadmap to success.

Integrating SMART criteria into the task management process ensures that every initiative is taking the company closer to its overarching objectives. Clear metrics and benchmarks help to track progress and outcomes. You must set realistic expectations in line with the available resources and align tasks to the broader business objectives. At times, setting clear deadlines and milestones can create a sense of urgency and momentum that helps to drive teams forward.

Technology and task management

The integration of technology into task management has opened new avenues for efficiency. From simple list apps to comprehensive project management software, technology offers personalised solutions to enhance the organisation, tracking and execution of tasks. Apps like Asana, Trello and Monday.com, for instance, can help your teams to organize, track and complete tasks. With intuitive interfaces, users can create tasks, assign them to team members, set deadlines and monitor progress through customisable dashboards.

Cultivate a habit of adaptation 

In the pursuit of productivity, it’s easy to get caught up in the relentless cycle of doing without taking the time to reflect and adapt. For, it is in these moments of introspection that true growth occurs. Make it a habit to regularly review your to-do list, celebrate your accomplishments, and identify areas for improvement. 

Be willing to adapt your approach based on what works and what doesn’t, and never shy away from seeking feedback from colleagues or mentors. By cultivating a mindset of continuous improvement, you position yourself for success in the ever-evolving landscape of the modern workplace.

Mayank Kumar is co-founder and managing director of upGrad.

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